Imagine inventing a sport and then being shunned by it. That’s the Haudenosaunee story
By DAVID WHARTON
STAFF WRITER AUG. 21, 20203 AM
Before all the haggling, the ugly words and political machinations, there was a happier story.
The way the Haudenosaunee people tell it, the animals of the forest gathered for a great ballgame. The powerful bear and swift deer led one team; on the other side stood the hawk, eagle and owl.
Just before the start, a mouse and squirrel approached the birds, asking to join in. It seems they had been rejected by the larger four-legged animals because of their size. The birds welcomed them.
This ancestral tale serves as a metaphor for the Haudenosaunee, a confederacy of Native American communities scattered across the Northeast, and the sometimes uneasy relationship they have with the sport they invented.
Lacrosse began as a rough-hewn contest played on stretches of open land with sticks made from hickory and catgut. It has increased greatly in popularity over the last two decades, with armies of high school and college players charging around manicured fields, dressed in bright uniforms and plastic helmets, their sticks bolstered with carbon fiber. The world championship attracts teams from around the globe.
The Haudenosaunee (hoad-nah-SHAW-nee) have fought to keep pace with the times. Their homegrown squad, the Iroquois Nationals, draws from a small talent pool but usually ranks in the top five internationally.
Much of the lacrosse community respects them as creators of the sport. The problem is, Thompson and his teammates also have faced racist taunts from opponents, and the Nationals have struggled with governments and bureaucracy trying to keep them off the field.
The latest controversy arose this summer when the World Games — a smaller version of the Olympics — decided to add men’s lacrosse to its program in 2022 but did not invite the third-ranked Nationals after officials balked at classifying the Haudenosaunee as a sovereign nation.
“It was insulting and frustrating,” says Rex Lyons, a former player who serves on the team’s board of directors. “It’s one of those things where you get a little taxed when you keep running up against the same obstacle.”
Lacrosse got its name in the 1600s when a French missionary came upon the Haudenosaunee playing with curved sticks that reminded him of a “crosse,” or crozier, the staff that bishops carry.
The modern game has a rectangular field with goals at either end. The 10 players on each side each use those sticks with webbed ends to pass and catch a rubber ball — also to smack one another — as they angle for shots.
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